‘Depth’s a funny thing’: Cubs trudging forward as injuries mount
Each day, David Ross settles into his office or the interview room and looks at the wall of talking heads on the Zoom screen for a pregame media session.
Just about every day, those pressers start off with roster moves or injury questions.
Wednesday was no different, as Ross was immediately asked about Anthony Rizzo’s back and Nico Hoerner’s hamstring as the Cubs are once again dealing with a wave of injuries.
They’re far from alone in that area. Around the game, injuries are up at an alarming rate. Many expected pitching to go through some physical issues after the shortened season but we’re seeing a major influx of position players going down with injury, too.
Hoerner was placed on the 10-day IL Wednesday with a “mild to moderate” hamstring strain that puts him in a similar situation the Cubs have experienced recently with Jake Marsinick and Justin Steele. Steele walked off the mound with some hamstring tightness last Thursday and Marisnick left the Cubs game on Mother’s Day (May 9).
Realistically, the Cubs will be without their Gold-Glove-finalist second baseman for at least the next two weeks as Hoerner recovers from the strain. But that’s something of a best case scenario after seeing the way the 24-year-old crumpled to the ground in pain Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.
The Cubs have also received positive injury news this week on Willson Contreras, who was back in the lineup Wednesday night after missing one game with a left wrist contusion from Craig Kimbrel’s 98 mph fastball in Sunday’s contest.
Rizzo’s back issue is troublesome, but the Cubs are optimistic at the moment and proceeding with an abundance of caution. He was out of the lineup Wednesday with low back tightness after waking up stiff.
He slipped coming out of the batter’s box last week in a game at Wrigley Field and has played through it since then.
“He understands how important it is that he’s out there and felt like he could play but when it does creep up, I try to listen to him,” Ross said. “He knows his body pretty well and just making sure we’re taking every precaution that we possibly can.”
There’s no talk of an IL stint right now for Rizzo, which is a good thing because the Cubs’ injured list is…well, very full.
With Hoerner’s addition, there are now 10 Cubs players on the IL:
Jason Heyward (hamstring)
Matt Duffy (low back)
Alec Mills (low back)
Trevor Megill (forearm)
Rowan Wick (oblique/intercostal)
Jonathan Holder (shoulder)
Austin Romine (wrist)
Wick, Holder and Romine are all on the 60-day IL.
The Cubs activated right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller (low back) off the IL Wednesday but immediately designated him for assignment to clear room on the 40-man roster for Rafael Ortega.
Ortega, a 30-year-old outfielder, will serve as Hoerner’s replacement in the position player group and was inserted into Wednesday’s lineup against the Pirates. He responded by sparking the offense with a walk in the 2nd inning and also singled in the 3rd inning.
With all these injuries, the Cubs have had no choice but to take a “next man up” approach. It’s worked so far, as the team is currently 1 game out of first place in the NL Central after a strong month of May.
“Depth’s a funny thing,” Ross said. “Other guys get opportunities and could step up and be great. When you have as many guys sidelined coming off of last year and the lack of real at-bats that the minor leagues had last year, I don’t know if there is such a thing as depth right now. These guys are only 15-16 games into the minor league season.
“You still gotta perform no matter who’s here and I know every organization is trying to create as much depth as they possibly can. There’s no secret to that. … We just have to continue to rely on the guys that are here and trust in those guys having professional at-bats and going out and playing to the best of their ability.”
Ross is right about the lack of a minor league season in 2020. That means players like Ortega, Patrick Wisdom, P.J. Higgins and Nick Martini (who currently make up the Cubs bench) spent most of their time last summer playing at alternate sites and not in live game action.
But spring training was an important tool for the Cubs to evaluate their entire roster, including all the players that did not make the Opening Day group.
Cubs fans might remember Oretga from a strong showing in Cactus League play that included a walk-off grand slam on March 9.
“Spring training’s important to evaluate and see what kind of baseball player we have,” Ross said. “I think Rafi definitely stood out, his intent to win the game.
“I remember him being a part of a couple of those comebacks we had there in spring training. He had that nice fight and grit to him on the backside of games, which is never easy in spring.”
Now the hope for the Cubs is that players like Ortega can bring that same level of grit to the big leagues as they wait for the rest of the roster to return to health.